Cuba wanderlust dims
American cuts daily flights as demand lags; Trump questions loom
U.S. airlines were ecstatic earlier this year when it was announced that commercial flights would resume to Cuba after more than 50 years, with one executive at a major carrier calling it almost a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Yet as U.S. airlines begin flights this week to Havana, the longawaited travel surge to Cuba is already in doubt.
Citing weak demand, American Airlines Group Inc. trimmed plans for almost a quarter of its flights to Cuba early next year. And in a potentially crippling blow, Presidentelect Donald Trump is threatening to rescind new relaxed policies with the island nation, leaving the future of travel there in limbo. Already, Trump’s comments have prompted some travelers to accelerate plans to visit Cuba before his inauguration or to delay them until he makes his policies clear.
“People are afraid Trump is going to close the border again, and then it will be impossible to go there,” said Alexandre Chemla, founder of Altour, the largest independently owned U.S. travel agency. “It’s a wait-and-see situation because of Trump and everything he said.”
American’s decision isn’t related to Trump’s potential pullback from Cuba, said Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, noting that the carrier implemented its cut the weekend before the presidential election.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines, whose first Havana-bound flight departs Miami International Airport on Thursday, plans to monitor that route’s performance before announcing any service to Cuban cities other than Havana, spokesman Jim Faulkner said.
Earlier this year, the ultra-low cost carrier also received approval for service to the cities of Camaguey, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba but has yet to add any of those other destinations to the schedule.
“We’ll definitely keep an eye on the route’s performance,” Faulkner said.
The uncertainty represents a stark turnaround from March when U.S. airlines sought permission to fly almost 60 daily round trips to Havana, triple the 20 daily frequencies authorized under the agreement between the U.S. and Cuba. They also applied for 10 daily round trips to each of nine other destinations on the island.
That followed President Barack Obama’s executive orders last year clearing the way for travel agents and the public to book direct flights to the communist nation as long as travelers qualify under 12 accepted reasons for a visit, such as educational activities or visiting family.
Eight airlines, including American, began initiating service to Havana this week, with a total of 500 flights to the city expected to have been completed by year end, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Flights to smaller Cuban cities began earlier this year.
American will cut daily roundtrip flights between the U.S. and Cuba to 10, from 13, starting in mid-February because of lower than expected demand, Miller said. The company also will fly smaller jets on two routes, he said.
Other carriers, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and Spirit Airlines Inc., said bookings so far are in line with expectations. Southwest declined to comment. But airlines have kept fares low to fill seats, said Paul Berry, spokesman for Spirit, known as an ultra-discount carrier.
“When fares are as low as ours, that means there’s a lot of capacity,” Berry said.
United Continental Holdings Inc. isn’t flying to Cuba from South Florida, where there’s “an enormous amount” of flights and seats on such routes, chief financial officer Andrew Levy said in an interview Tuesday. The Chicago-based airline is flying only to Havana, with daily service from Newark, N.J., and on Saturdays from Houston.
“From what I understand, it’s going to take a really, really long time for that to become a Caribbean destination that’s as popular as some of the other ones that are out there today,” he said. “The infrastructure just isn’t there. I’m personally skeptical about the opportunity.”
On Monday, days after the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Trump reiterated on Twitter a campaign pledge that he will “terminate” Obama’s new trade policies with the island nation unless it agrees to “a better deal.”
Dania Rivero and her husband Jesus take their seats Tuesday on United Flight 1502, the first direct passenger flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Havana. Julio Cortez, The Associated Press